Terra Blackstone, leader of the Diaspora Group, returns to Luna only to discover a threat that could undo everything that she has worked to create!
The control of the twelve Diaspora colonies across the solar system hangs in the balance.
Terra Blackstone, once named the world’s most desirable woman, caught another floating blob of what had been her dinner in the plastic bag. Chicken soup, with vegetables. Her stomach turned. She didn’t feel like the world’s most desirable woman. Her head was stuffy, her face was bloated, and her hair made a frizzy halo around her head.
The plain black, and very shapeless, workall she wore didn’t do much to paint a pretty picture either.
In fact the only thing about her that looked good, were her toenails. She’d painted them in the hour before the capsule spin was shut down. Bright green, with golden flecks. One advantage with space travel. No real need for shoes in the transport and bare feet let her show off her nails. That, and in zero-gee she had gotten adept at grabbing onto grips with her toes.
Thankfully, being the sole human occupant in the capsule, there was no one to pop up and take a picture. She could see the headline on the tabloid sites.
World’s Most Powerful Woman Chases Vomit!
Another little oscillating blob drifted past. Carefully, Terra swept it up into the bag.
It was so annoying! She’d never gotten space sick before, but every time was different. The abrupt change over from the simulated gravity to null-gee had been too much. She shouldn’t have eaten so soon.
Not that it mattered now. She barely had time to clean up before Luna Orbitals caught her capsule to take it down to the surface. The solar sail that had carried her capsule out to Earth’s orbit was following a trajectory that would take it back past Venus and Mercury. In two days a resupply capsule from Luna would match trajectory and get a free ride into the inner system.
Now that the Tolkien Outpost on Mercury was up and running, the solar sail network would grow as more and more sails were sent out in transfer orbits around the solar system.
Speakers came to life in the command section, with a male voice. “Orbital Command to Diana, come in. Do you read, Diana?”
Terra bagged the last large blob of soup, sealed the bag and kicked herself forward. The scrubbers would have to take care of the rest of the droplets. Fortunately, with the zero-gee effects, she didn’t have a good sense of smell right now.
As she floated past the trash storage bin behind command, she stuffed the baggy inside.
“Orbital Command to Diana, come in please.”
She pulled herself into the seat, slipping her bare toes under the elastic restraint on the ‘floor.’ She pulled an earpiece from its magnetic dock and slipped it on.
She touched the command interface, tapping in her code, then activate communications.
“Diana here, Orbital. Sorry about the delay. I was doing some housekeeping before landing.”
“Understood. Be advised that our docking has been delayed. There’s a fault with the auto-guidance routines. We have a programmed burn that will adjust your orbit to a more stable inclination while we correct the issue.”
Were they serious? Auto-guidance down? “Negative, Orbital. If auto-guidance is down, I’ll bring her in on manual. I don’t have time to spend up here orbiting.”
Her hands were already moving, calling up the command interfaces, overriding the auto-pilot lockouts. She might be the one in charge of the Diaspora Group, that didn’t mean that she didn’t know how to handle herself with a stick.
“Diana, negative on manual approach. Wait for auto-guidance.”
“Who is that?” Terra asked. “I am bringing her in. I suggest you prepare for docking.”
“Negative Diana. Negative on manual approach. Sensors are also down, we can’t ensure a positive lock.”
Now that was just wrong. Either the guy was not trained or someone wanted to stop her from docking. She didn’t accept either. The systems were set up to allow manual docking even in the event of power failures. In an emergency, docking might save lives, it had to work. Unless they’d been hit by a micrometeorite that caused significant physical damage, there wasn’t any need not to dock.
“Understood, Orbital,” Terra said calmly. “Adjusting heading now.”
It wouldn’t take long before they saw that the heading she was on was straight to docking. The on-screen projection showed the capsule moving on target right in the orbital window. Simple reaction thrusters and inertia was bringing her right down the pipe.
She was right, it didn’t take long. “Orbital here, your vectors show you on docking approach, Diana. Uploading corrected programming now.”
She diverted the incoming data stream into a buffer safe from any control functions, then pulled it up in a secondary window and put a simulation with the commands in a third. The results were not promising. If she had allowed the signal in to her command pathways it would have initiated a long burn taking her out of lunar orbit, on a spiraling path to burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Whoever was in control of the orbital was trying to kill her. It didn’t make a bit of difference. There wasn’t any place else for her to go. Not right now. Given enough time she might figure out a better option, but right now she wanted to get down to Diaspora and the orbital was the only way at the moment.
Flaw there, one she’d correct if she got out of this alive.
“Programming received, Orbital, thank you for your assistance,” she said.
On screen, the parameters all stayed green. She was still on track for the docking. She entered the final sequence of commands and locked them in place. Within seconds the Orbital would see that she wasn’t going to be diverted. And there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.
At least, she hoped that was the case.
No one came back on. So they knew then, and they’d be waiting for her to dock. They could lock down the dock from the inside if they wanted. No one would ever do that ordinarily, but there wasn’t anything about this that was ordinary.
The countdown to contact on the screen showed less than an hour before she reached the Orbital. It still wasn’t above the horizon. She couldn’t see it with her own eyes. For the first time since she reached the seat she allowed herself to look out.
The Moon rolled past beneath her, above her, all depending on perspective. Gray and undulating, covered in craters blasted into the surface by impacts. How long had Humanity looked at that battered and scarred face without realizing the threat represented? Even after humanity learned of the dangers, of mass extinctions, little had been done. Budgets to locate and detect impact threats were perpetually underfunded.
Not only that, as their understanding grew regarding the fragility of the ecosystem, how many took action? Most denied the truth in front of them and stuck their heads in the sand, or worse.
Terra had never been one to back down from any challenge. What had she said, over and over, until people had to be tired of her saying it? Too often fear was an excuse not to do things. Not with her.
Fact. Someone had taken control of her Orbital. The station was a way station in orbit around the Moon, serving as a docking and refueling point in orbit. A transfer port, a safe harbor providing access to the Moon, and Diaspora Base below.
Fact. The program the Orbital had sent was meant to kill her. It had failed, but that didn’t mean those on board would give up.
Fact. There’d been no communication with Diaspora on the surface, or from Earth.
Terra’s fingers danced across the control systems and quickly confirmed what she had already realized on some level. They were blocking her communications. Even those that knew she was coming, there wasn’t anything they could do to help.
Fact. She had enemies back on Earth. Entire countries worth of people who would celebrate if she died because they believed that her death would derail the Diaspora Group from its goals.
They might not be wrong. She wanted to believe that the civilization they were creating, humanity throughout the solar system, was independent and would continue without her leading the effort. But that might not be the case yet. Mercury had produced only a few solar sails so far. On Venus, the adventures of Carys Rex had gained them significant good will among some, and had stoked the anger of others. The other outposts of life scattered across the solar system were also fragile. Each was coming into its own now, thanks to timing the launches. Those in the outer system, as far as Makemake, had spent years in transit. Just getting there had been a triumph, but survival was still a question.
In another few years all twelve colonies would be secure enough to ward off efforts of Earth to control them. And by then, there would be additional outposts on each world. Humanity would grow and spread. She intended to let the genie out of the bottle for good.
Fact. If she didn’t act soon the transport capsule would dock with the Orbital and she would be captured or ejected out of the airlock. A story would get played about the dangers of space travel taking her life, and her enemies would work to seize control of her outposts, for their own profit.
Fact. She couldn’t let that happen.
Terra slipped her feet out of the floor brace and pulled herself up over the seat back.
They’d catch her if she docked and was still on board the capsule. Best option then? Don’t be on the capsule when it docked.
Suiting up usually took a minimum of thirty minutes. Terra managed it in eleven minutes, bypassing the checks, following the emergency procedures established if the capsule’s integrity was breached. It was breached, the alarms just hadn’t sounded yet.
She only had a couple more minutes before the capsule docked with the orbital. The suit was sleek and modern, white with bright green patches across the shoulders, around the wrists and ankles. It applied pressure using smart materials, eliminating the bulk of earlier suits and hugged her curves. The bulkiest part remaining was the EVU strapped to her back, and even that was trimmed down and modular. With the extra resource module she could stay out all day, but there wasn’t any point in bringing that along.
Once in the rear airlock Terra left the inner hatch open and remotely accessed the capsule’s internal systems. She brought up the fire suppression protocols. It took another minute to configure the system to compensate for what she was about to do, so that it didn’t throw off the docking procedure.
A minute before contact she braced herself against the wall between two grips and triggered the protocol.
The outer airlock door opened into space. The atmosphere in the capsule blew out past her, tugging on her, but she was prepared. In a critical fire, the quick decompression would snuff out the fire in seconds. The venting might also have thrown off her docking, except for the corrections she had made.
On the Orbital they would see the forward thrusters firing. They might not see the venting. Or what was coming next.
As soon as the venting stopped Terra propelled herself out the door, using grips to pull herself out into the shadow side of the capsule. Her lights were all off. The reflected light from the Moon below gave her enough light to see by. She’d use the EVU when necessary, but right now she wanted to stick close to the capsule, staying to the shadows, and hopefully go unnoticed.
Grips ran the length of the capsule like rungs on a ladder, there to help with repairs to the exterior. Terra pulled herself quickly along them, using only her arms, touching every third or fourth grip. The suit was stiff, making her movements slower than she would have liked. Her breath sounded loud in the helmet.
She was two-thirds along the length of the capsule when it docked. The jolt traveled through the ship, through her gloves, but of course the only sound she heard was her own breathing.
When she reached for the next rung, it jerked out of reach for a second. Glancing up ahead, exhaust caught the light as the Orbital’s thrusters fired.
They had opened the hatch without checking if the capsule was pressurized, evacuating that section of the Orbital. Whoever had been waiting for her was probably sucking vacuum now. Hopefully that only included those out to get her, and no one loyal. Automatic systems would have sealed the compartment.
The rest of the Orbital should still be secure.
A few seconds later she drifted past the junction where the capsule docked with the Orbital. As she reached the Orbital’s exterior rungs, there was a window into the interior. It was there to allow visual inspection of docking ships.
No way to avoid it. Terra looked inside. Red lights were flashing inside.
She saw a man first. Muscled, wearing only black regulation shorts and t-shirt, bald scalp and wide, bulging eyes. He shook as he floated in mid-compartment, mouth gaping like a grounded fish.
Holland Bird. He’d been with Diaspora ten years, running the Orbital for the past three. Had he betrayed her?
His eyes dimmed. His body went slack. Bubbles of urine slipped free of his shorts and floated in the compartment.
For his sake, she hoped that he had betrayed her. At least then it was self-defense. Unless he had been forced to do it, she didn’t see how someone could have sent the program to misdirect the capsule without his knowledge. But it hadn’t been his voice on the radio.
Another body drifted into view, the man was already dead. He wore a brown workall, too small for his lean body, the sleeves and pant legs were short. His back was to the window. Black hair, silvered on the sides.
There wasn’t time to waste. Terra grabbed the next rung and propelled herself on past the window. She had to assume that not all of those that wanted her dead had been caught in the compartment. If they didn’t know she was outside, they would figure it out soon.
The Orbital was big. She was on the central hub right now, pulling herself along the spine of the craft. Up ahead was the rotating crew quarters sections, like a dumbbell rotating around the central axis. A long, skinny dumbbell. Two now, with two skeletal frameworks for the next two to make a cross. When that was done the habitat modules would be connected, creating a spinning wheel around the central axis.
Those weren’t the only sections sticking out at angles, however. There were two others on each side of the rotating section, essentially more work spaces running perpendicular to the spine, with airlocks on each end. And in-between those were the large solar arrays unfurled into space.
The Orbital was big. It had been the test platform for the spacecraft sent into the outer system to colonize those distant worlds. Those ships had been even bigger, given the necessity of taking their supplies with them.
Terra’s course took her along the spine, and then she turned and pulled herself along the first perpendicular work space, called Northwest, if she was inside, as this was the North end of the Orbital and the two branches were Northwest and Southwest. Right now Northwest was in shadow.
Unless someone saw her, they wouldn’t know what she was doing. There were airlocks at each end, plus the three on the Southern end of the Orbital. Northwest was the closest, which meant those inside could get to it quickly, but they would always be able to move faster than her floating along the outside. Her best bet was to get there before they figured it out.
They couldn’t all be against her. She didn’t believe that. It could be that the incident at the North end airlock would have shaken things up enough inside that loyalists might have regained control of the Orbital. She just couldn’t count on it and couldn’t wait around.
The one window she passed along the Northwest passage was dark. Luck appeared to be in her favor. The lights only stayed on when someone was in the compartment.
Terra reached the end airlock assembly and pulled herself around to the entrance. There was a manual release override, quicker and easier than the control panel. Again, designed for emergencies, to let someone outside get in quickly. Terra braced her feet in the rungs and pulled the lever.
The door and docking assembly swung inward. That was good. She moved fast. Someone could prevent her gaining entry by barring the inner door.
It’s hard to move fast in zero gee when you have to change directions. Inertia is a bitch. She swung around the lip and launched herself into the opening. Inside she caught the open hatch to stop her progress and her body swung around. Her legs struck the hatch frame and sharp pain shot up her shins.
Shit! That was going to leave a bruise.
But she was inside. That was better than clinging to the outside of the Orbital like a bug in danger of being washed away by a storm.
Terra kicked over the other side of the hatch and braced herself against the side to get the hatch moving closed. It swung shut on its own, and she dogged over the latch to secure it.
She slapped the big button to pressurize the airlock. Nothing complicated there. Soon she heard a hissing outside and the hum of the equipment. Faint shouts that grew louder.
Terra went to the inner airlock door and pulled up the command interface. Again she accessed the fire suppression systems. It took an extra override to keep the outer door closed. The shouts were louder. People were coming.
There! She stabbed triumphantly at the panel. The inner door swung open, nearly catching her in the process. There was a brief rush of wind as the higher pressure atmosphere in the station surged into the partially pressurized lock. Equipment groaned.
Terra pulled herself through the hatch into the main Northwest passage. Down the long tube, in the next section, were two people.
Ahn Nguyen, thin, delicate Asian face with eyes wide with shock, and fingers on her ears. Beside her, Geoff Ryder, his body unnaturally shortened since he was missing his legs below his knees. A motorcycle accident when he was a teenager, but his engineering ability had eventually won him a place on the Orbital. He had two prosthetic gripping feet attached to each stump. His chicken feet, he called them, controlled by neural impulses.
She knew them. Both of them. Ahn was the medical officer on the Orbital, responsible for the health of the crews that rotated on and off.
Geoff pulled himself forward with powerful arms. “Who are you? Stay right there!”
The helmet’s auto visor had mirrored the outside, they couldn’t see her face. She reached up and hit the catches, then twisted the helmet free.
“It’s me,” she said. “What the hell is going on here?”
“Terra!” Ahn yelled. Her voice caught and her hand flew to her mouth. “Ms. Blackstone, I mean. We thought you were dead!”
“Terra is fine.”
Geoff pressed a hand to his chest. “You about gave me a heart attack!”
“I need to know what’s happened. Who tried to kill me?”
Geoff’s face sobered. “Holland Bird and that government fellow, Peter McNare. They took over operations, but they aren’t working alone. Diaspora Base has been seized.”
Terra released the helmet to float beside her while she worked on the straps to release the EVU. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, I see.”
On the way back to the Hub, which was were main operations were located, they filled her in on what had happened. The United States government had launched one of their new Galleon-class ships, the Lincoln, to the Moon. The Galleon program was an effort by the last two administrations to reclaim space for the American people, if that could be believed!
In any case, the Lincoln had transferred over Peter McNare and a team of people, including armed security, to seize the Orbital under eminent domain. Not only the Orbital, but according to Geoff and Ahn, they were seizing the Diaspora Base on the Moon.
“They can’t do that,” Terra said as they coasted to a stop in the hub. There were others in the hub, more of the standing crew, floating at stations around the Hub.
“Holland didn’t think we should resist,” Geoff said as he snagged a grip on the wall with one of his robotic chicken feet. “He said that it was a matter for lawyers to work out.”
“That’d make me feel better if he hadn’t tried to kill me.” Terra looked at the faces, all looking at her.
The Hub was the largest open area on the Orbital, a sphere around which the habitat booms rotated. The opening into each shaft was always open, in a ring that moved around the sphere, so that area was clear. If you wanted to go downstairs, into either East or West, you caught a grip on the ring, and brought yourself up to speed, then crawled into the shaft. The grips eventually became a ladder as you descended into the habitat modules.
Around the ring were workstations for communications, environmental systems, power, navigation and command. Each station, and associated sub-stations were spaced around the hub so that the faces looking at her were from all angles, some upside down to her perspective.
“I’m glad to see the rest of you are safe,” Terra said. “I’m sure you already know that Holland Bird and the government man, Peter McNare, were killed when they opened an airlock into an unpressurized transport capsule docked at the North end.”
Silence from all those gathered.
“I am indirectly responsible for their deaths,” Terra said. “A navigation program was sent from here to the transport capsule that, if I had allowed it into my systems, would have caused the transport capsule to enter a decaying orbit around Earth and burn up. I wouldn’t have had fuel left to correct the orbit. I was acting in self-defense when I exited the capsule, leaving it depressurized to prevent anyone from stopping me from entering the Orbital. If they had checked the pressurization readings at the airlock before opening the hatch, they would have seen that it was depressurized and wouldn’t have come to any harm.”
“That’s not like Holland,” Geoff said. “He’s normally so careful.”
Terra nodded. She’d been thinking the same thing. “You’re right, Geoff. Holland may have neglected that standard safety procedure intentionally. I will review the recordings. If that’s the case, he may have done so in an effort to save my life, and our dream.”
People were nodding. The faces were serious, and focused. Maybe some were scared.
“The United States government has acted illegally. The Diaspora Group is an international effort, thanks to your hard work. No single government has the authority to come in and claim our property, or tell us what we can do in space. We are independent. Apparently earlier than I expected. If, as I suspect, Holland Bird died to defend our freedoms, then we will remember him as a true hero, who died securing the future of humanity.”
Many more nods of agreement. “Right now, we’ve got a job to do. I need information. I need to know what’s happened down at Diaspora Base. What happened to the Lincoln, where is she?”
Melissa Schmidt, at the communications station, young, petite with an elfin face, raised her hand.
“Melissa?” Terra asked. “Please, what can you give me?”
“The same thing is happening back on Earth. The United States government has moved to seize Diaspora facilities across the globe. At the moment those are mostly at a stand-off. We haven’t had any communication with Diaspora Base, not since the Lincoln dispatched all three landers to the site.”
“All?” Terra’s heart sank. They only had three landers on the Orbital, and three down at the base. When one came down, one went up in rotation.
That left her with no way off the Orbital.
“Is there any way to get me down to the surface?”
Blank faces looked back at her, and each other. Not Geoff. He closed his eyes and rubbed at his jaw. She’d seen him do that before when he was thinking.
Melissa’s hand came up again.
“Yes? You have an idea Melissa?”
Melissa started to shake her head and stopped. Zero-gee training, don’t make unnecessary movements, even when your feet were braced. “No. Not about that, I mean, how could you? Get to the surface? No, I was thinking about the orders that McNare gave us. As long as we followed orders, he said we wouldn’t face criminal charges, and neither would our families back home.”
A cold chill settled into Terra, but none of it reached her face. “Yes?”
“Well, I mean shouldn’t we think about it? I don’t think they were right to try to kill you, if that’s what happened, but they’re dead and you’re not. Maybe we need someone else to be in charge right now and investigate.”
It took guts. One had to admire that, even if it was misguided. Terra looked around the room, noting some expressions that might appear sympathetic.
“This is scary, isn’t it?”
Small nods, no unnecessary movement, but agreement.
“You’re caught in the middle of big events. You’re vulnerable because we’re close to Earth. Our families are vulnerable as well. I can’t promise you that it’s going to be easy, but we are talking about fundamental rights and freedoms. We have every right to settle these worlds, to expand humanity across the entire solar system. And I will do everything in my power to make sure that happens. Right now I need to know that I can count on all of you. If that’s not the case, tell me now, and you’ll be confined to quarters until we straighten this out and can return you to Earth. If that’s what you want, I’ll happily tell the authorities of your stance.”
Terra didn’t try to keep the ice from her voice. She wanted to shake them, make them decide. Melissa looked pale. So did a couple others.
“I’m staying,” Ahn said quickly.
Murmurs of agreement.
“I’ll stay,” Melissa said. “I’m sorry, Ms. Blackstone. I didn’t mean —”
“Let’s focus on the task right now,” Terra said. “But thank you. Thank you all. I won’t forget this. Geoff? What about it? How do I get down?”
Geoff opened his eyes and gave her a toothy smile. “It’ll be a bumpy ride?”
“That’s okay. As long as I can get down there, then I can do something about what’s happening. Diaspora Base is the heart of what we’re doing. I put it here so that there wouldn’t be jurisdictional issues. I can’t let it stay in their control.”
Geoff told her the plan.
Two hours later, Terra wasn’t so sure about the idea as she climbed back into the transport capsule that had brought her to the Orbital. It’d taken that long to get it refueled, repressurized, and store the bodies.
She paused in the hatch. Geoff was there, along with several others. “You’re sure this is going to work?”
Geoff laughed. “Sure? How can I? We’ve never tried to land one of these things. It should have enough thrust to slow your descent to a survivable level. The tool kit I’ve stowed is there in case you need to cut your way out. Best I can do on short notice.”
“We need to rethink this in future designs,” Terra said. “Okay. I’m off.”
“Good luck!” Geoff said.
Terra pushed herself back into the capsule. Geoff shut the hatch. She was still suited up, but now she pulled up her helmet and sealed it. The EVU was stored on the Orbital. All unnecessary gear had already been stripped from the capsule. Everything they could do to decrease the mass.
Between the decompression and the stripping of the capsule, at least she didn’t have to worry about any vomit drops flying around the capsule.
The transport looked bare stripped down to the essentials. She’d spent months living in here, and this was like coming back home only to find everything was gone.
Not that it mattered. Transport capsules like this were designed to be interchangeable. This was one of the small ones, designed for no more than three people and limited durations like travel between the inner planets, or between Jovian moons.
Terra kicked off and floated down the empty length to the control deck. She caught the chair and let her momentum carry her legs around into the space. She pulled herself down into the seat and clamped her boots in place, then fastened the straps.
Time to go.
She pulled up the navigation console and accessed the flight plan, reviewing it carefully. She wanted to believe that Geoff and the rest on the Orbital were loyal, but if someone wanted to take another shot at getting rid of her, this insane plan was a good bet. They could say she died doing something dangerous. End of the matter.
The plan matched the simulations she had already reviewed. A short burn to get away from the Orbital, another to put her into a decaying orbit that would bring her down near Diaspora Base. The final sequence was the key. According to the simulations it would bring her to a stop relative the surface.
The capsule didn’t have any landing gear. At that point it would fall. If they were on target the drop shouldn’t cause any significant damage. If off target? The drop could rupture the capsule.
Assuming she made it down intact, she still had to get out, get to Diaspora Base, and get back in control of the facility. Simple. If only life was ever simple. The information gaps were so big that it could jeopardize everything that she was doing.
Terra accepted the navigation plans and set them in motion. A count down started. Fifteen minutes. They’d timed this all out to the last second. A few minutes later and she’d overshoot her target. Early and she would come down too far from Diaspora Base to reach it on foot, if she survived the landing at all.
While she waited she pulled up the system and started making notes, documenting everything that had happened leading up to this point. There hadn’t been time to work on it while getting the capsule ready. That had been all hands on deck.
Now that she had to wait it was a good time to write a statement laying it all out. She focused on her actions and her thought process. If the wrong hands got on the record, they’d twist it to back their case, but at least she had made the attempt.
Had Holland Bird betrayed her? The crew of the Orbital accepted her explanation of his actions at the end. He may have known what was going to happen. Everything up until then, however, demonstrated that Holland Bird hadn’t been willing to fight the McNare and the others from the Lincoln to preserve the station or to prevent their access to the base. He had allowed them to send away all three landers.
Cowardice, or concern for his people? Bird was from Oregon state, another member from the United States, maybe he still believed his loyalty was first to his country.
All of that was a question for later. After she’d had a chance to review all the evidence. Either way, he was dead, but it made a difference in how he was remembered. It was important to get that right.
The countdown reached the final sequence. Terra filed away her unfinished account. Three. Two. One.
The first kick was gentle and pushed her against the straps as the short burn moved the capsule away from the Orbital. Through the windows the Orbital rose above and passed over the capsule out of sight in seconds.
She was on her way.
From here the process was mostly automated. More burns triggered, accelerating her orbit, bringing her in closer. Lava plains gave way to airless mountains below, like flying high above everything on Earth, but this was a world stripped bare and shrouded in dust. No forests or rivers. No lakes or oceans.
Across Mare Imbruim she flew, her orbit descending gradually, with gentle burns. She didn’t want to come in too steep. Do that and she’d be like a bullet fired into a rock, crumbled up beyond recognition.
The capsule lacked good instrumentation for landing. Geoff’s scheme included using the docking range finder to determine distance to the surface and relative velocity. Although she could make adjustments, the program would land her if she let it. She trusted the program. To a point. If it crossed the line it held, then she would take over.
Otherwise she wanted to come in at “land” more or less on end, as if she was trying to dock with the moon.
Which was an insane plan, even it worked. It could also mean that the hatch wouldn’t open after the capsule fell down.
In which case she did have a tool kit stored, courtesy Geoff, that she could use to cut her own way out.
Without an atmosphere, there was no drag, no signs of her rapid descent as she streaked around the Moon. Her orbit would take her around the Moon, then back around to land near Diaspora Base.
The capsule rolled over and there was the Moon now easily visible above her. Beneath her. Whatever was to come, she enjoyed these moments close to these worlds. As a girl she had enjoyed nights out with her father on the hill behind the house, lying on a blanket while he set the telescope to different worlds.
Moon. Venus. Jupiter. Saturn with its rings. Worlds that she could see with her own eyes, looking through his telescope.
“Are there people on them, Daddy?” She had asked.
“No, sweet-pea. Once, long ago, when I was very little, and even a few years before, some men did visit the Moon. That’s as far as they’ve gone, and they haven’t been back in a very, very long time. I wasn’t even two when the last man left.”
She had laughed and shook her head, ringlets flying around her face. “You’re kidding!”
“No, sweet-pea. I’m not.”
“Really? Whole entire planets? And no one on them at all?” It sounded impossible. For one second she had the mad idea that he was showing her a secret. “Don’t other people know about them?”
“They know, but the other planets are very far away and they aren’t like here. You can’t just walk around outside on them, and lay on their hills at night.”
Since then she had visited each of the Apollo landing sites, at a distance so as not to disturb the foot prints, tire tracks and artifacts left behind. She had saved Taurus-Littrow for last, and she had stood on the hills overlooking that valley under the black sky.
Now, passing over the empty Moon it wasn’t as empty as it had been. Bright sparks flared from the surface, installations spaced around the Moon. Emergency shelters in case a lander came down far from the base. As her trajectory came around the far side, the long lines of the Far Side Observatory passed by her window, stretching off across the rough surface. The largest telescope in the solar system, still under construction, the F.S.O. would be capable of imagining Earth-like worlds around distant stars.
Diaspora wouldn’t stop at settling the worlds of this solar system. Humanity was spreading out across the galaxy. Sooner than people back on Earth imagined. Anyone that did the math could see that, even with sub-light travel, a species could spread out across the galaxy. The fact that apparently no other species was already doing that was one of the mysteries to solve.
After her father had shown her those worlds, they had locked in her imagination and she had learned everything she could about them. A firm, unshakable conviction had settled into her that she would visit those worlds herself.
All too soon she left the far side behind, passing over the terminator into darkness and then back into the light before her final descent to Diaspora Base. Night hadn’t fallen yet, which was in her favor. She was coming out of the Sun’s path, a fact that might shield her from anyone looking up.
Although the radar systems would pick up on the capsule. She had to assume that the people sent from the Lincoln were aware of her coming.
Diaspora Base didn’t have any weapons, but that didn’t mean that the people from the Lincoln hadn’t brought weapons with them.
Not that they needed to shoot her down. She was coming down one way or the other no matter what they did.
The surface was right there, in stark high resolution. No atmosphere meant no haze, no blurring of distant mountains and craters. Everything was stark, with sharp cast shadows.
The capsule shook as the thrusters kicked on. A long burn that vibrated the whole thing. The transport capsule was designed to operate outside of gravity wells. The thrusters were there for maneuvering. Secondary engines, temporary and reusable, were attached when it needed to reach higher acceleration and discarded when their job was completed. The solar sails Tolkien Base produced on Mercury were intended to tow capsules to other orbits, harnessing the power of the Sun.
Terra unfastened the straps. The Moon’s gravity was already making itself felt. It was weak, but there and changing fast. The microgravity environment at least gave her a sense of up and down.
She climbed out of the seat and bounced back into the capsule. When it came time to touch down the capsule would land rear-end first, and without anything to stabilize it, would fall over. It might even tumble. The control deck wasn’t going to be the safest place to be.
In the mid-compartment she pulled down one of the exercise seats. Geoff had hastily added straps, creating a make-shift jump seat. Given the structure of the capsule, this was likely the safest spot to be for the landing.
Terra sat down on the narrow bench and fastened the straps, pulling them down over her shoulders. They fastened into buckles on each side, and then a buckle across her breasts fastened the straps together. There wasn’t much give, the straps pressed against her breasts even through the tight suit. She folded her hands and waited.
The capsule shook. Engines burned, screaming as they poured on thrust for a burn that went on and on. Other thrusters were firing.
It rotated. Terra clutched the seat. Even if the Moon’s weak gravity, suddenly she was hanging in a seat above a pit that dropped away beneath her. With the stripped down capsule, nothing fell at least.
The burn went on and on. It was all automated. If the simulations were correct she’d come down right at the surface, within a meter, before the engines cut off.
Silence. Surprising in the absence of the engines burning. A gut-wrenching moment like the return of free fall and then a loud crashing noise and a jolt that shook the whole capsule.
Down. Still —
Slowly, then picking up speed, the capsule tipped to her left. The whole thing rotated and fell. Another bang and a strong jolt through the bench.
Metal creaked and groaned. No light coming through the windows. The capsule must have come down in a shadow. Light remained from the lighting strips, so the capsule had some power still.
No hissing noises. No explosions or sudden decompression. Apparently the capsule’s integrity was still intact. The floor wasn’t level, it was sloped toward her, but it didn’t seem like the capsule was rolling. That would have been something, if it had landed on a hill and had rolled!
Fortunately, things seemed still. All things considered, a remarkably successful landing!
Terra hit the release catch on the right strap. Nothing happened. Her heart picked up the pace. She pressed the release again, firmly. Nothing. She pressed and pulled on the strap. It was locked securely in place. She tried the one on the left side. Same thing. The one across her chest didn’t work. Impossible. How could all three buckles fail?
A laugh bubble up her throat and escaped. All this, only to get stuck here, trussed up and waiting for someone to collect her?
The laughter died. Geoff set up the jump seat. Was this a deliberate plan to set her up for capture? Or simply a malfunction? There hadn’t been much time to test things before launch, but surely he would have fastened and unfastened the buckles? The jolts from landing hadn’t felt powerful enough to damage the buckles. And all three? That sounded unlikely in the extreme.
She couldn’t wait for someone to show up and do whatever they were going to do. She needed to get out, now. Before they arrived.
Terra yanked on the straps. The buckles held securely. She worked the releases and none of them would engage. They didn’t even feel attached, sort of loose when she pulled on them.
A trap, then. Geoff had played along to get her off the Orbital and into the hands of the agents that the United States had sent to take over Diaspora. With his engineering background, he could control communications, whatever systems he needed. Without McNare, and possibly Holland, he had figured out a plan that would move her off to someone else.
Geoff would be dealt with later. After she had someone else look at the buckles to make sure that it was intentional, and not an unfortunate accident.
Not that she believed it was an accident. Given Geoff’s engineering background, and the buckles were spares, not something he had manufactured. He must have done something to them so that they would fasten and not come undone. And assuming that she got out of this, which at the moment was looking doubtful, she’d do the investigation just to be thorough.
Terra squirmed her right hand beneath her breast, under the strap, sucking in her breath as best she could. The suit wasn’t as bulky as old suits, but it was bulky enough. She couldn’t get her hand under the strap past her wrist.
That wasn’t working. If she could get her arms under and up through the upper part of the straps, then maybe she could wriggle up out of the straps.
Not while wearing the suit, at least. If she had something she could use to cut the straps, she could do that, but there wasn’t anything on her. The tools were secured in a compartment on the other side of the capsule so that they wouldn’t get loose in transit. She couldn’t get to them.
“Note to self,” she said out loud. “Make sure that Geoff, and anyone else responsible, is punished for this, if I get out of here.”
Not that she was vindictive.
There wasn’t time to waste. If she wasn’t sealed in a suit when someone arrived, they might depressurize the capsule and kill her. The capsule might also be leaking, even though pressure was strong for the moment.
The gloves were easiest. The safety catches took some work, but came unfastened as they should. She twisted and unlocked the ring that sealed them to the rest of the suit, then pulled her hands free. The gloves dangled from the wrists, attached by a thin strap.
The air was cold on her hands, free of the gloves. The capsule systems weren’t online since she was in the suit. Sitting in a shadow, it was cooling rapidly. If she got out she could get the systems going again, if she was going to stay around that long.
The helmet was next and much easier with her hands free. She pulled the helmet off and put it aside on the floor. Then she deactivated the suit. The bands constricting the suit, making it fit her form, when slack when the suit was turned off. With the pressure gone, now she had a chance. From here on out was the hard part.
Holding her right sleeve with one hand, Terra pulled her arm up into the sleeve. It was looser now that the suit was off. It took lots of wiggling and twisting around in the suit, but slowly she got her arm up the sleeve and into the main portion of the suit, down against her side, but it was now beneath the straps for all the good it did her.
Terra paused and took deep breaths. The straps weren’t as tight now that the suit had relaxed. Without its stiffness, there was a little room now to wiggle. Not much, hopefully enough.
She slid her hand up, across the thin fabric of her t-shirt, across her left breast, holding the opening of the sleeve while she wiggled and wormed her left arm up into the space. It was tight and difficult to get both arms into the main part of the suit. She managed, just, until both arms were inside, hands up by her neck.
She took as deep of breaths as she could manage and then wriggled to the side, pulling her to the left. The strap over her right shoulder slipped and slip, centimeter by centimeter. Terra fought against the pressure of the straps but it was no use. She couldn’t get the strap off her shoulder.
Frustrated she stopped fighting and breathed, sucking in air. This was how they were going to find her? Arms stuck inside her suit? Helmet and gloves off? Helpless against whatever they decided to do?
She needed a better angle. There was only one option. Terra wiggled down, deeper into the suit, pushing up with her hands, pulling her head down through the neck wring. Like a turtle pulling into its shell.
A lunar tortoise! A giggle escaped her lips and she paused, resting, then resumed the struggle. She got her head down, scrunched down as far as she could.
Again, she wiggled to the left, but this time she squirmed her right hand up, out the neck ring and grabbed the left strap. she pulled it up, slipping the suit to the side so that the strap went over the neck ring.
It worked! The pressure eased when the right strap slid off the empty right shoulder.
She threw herself against the suit the other way now, shoving the left strap. It too slid free and down her empty sleeve. Shuddering, Terra pressed her head back up through the neck ring and sucked lungfuls of cooling air.
It was getting colder. Her breath condensed. Now she could move. The straps lay at her sides, loose now that they weren’t up over her shoulders, though still fastened by the buckle that had gone across her chest. It was much easier to get her arms back into the sleeves, and slip her arms out from under the straps which were now nothing more than a lap belt.
Terra picked up her helmet and pulled it back on, fastening it securely. Then each glove. She activated the suit and it constricted around her, a thick, comforting presence hugging her curves.
Then it was a comparatively easy process to boost herself up, slipping the straps down over her legs. Terra stepped out of the seat and stretched out her arms and legs.
She was down on Luna. Getting free had taken time. The people from the Lincoln must be close. They could already be outside.
With no time to waste, she crossed to the compartment on the other side of the tilted capsule and pulled the door open. She half-expected the toolkit to be missing, even though she had seen it stored. It was there, a bright red case, with a long strap. She dragged it out, and opened it. Everything looked as it should. Cutting tools, and emergency gear, including extra air tanks. The EVU wasn’t designed for use on the surface, its weight would slow her down and throw her off balance.
Terra lifted the strap of the case over her helmet, settling it across her shoulder, the case beneath her right arm. If she couldn’t get to the base from here with this, then it didn’t matter. Her enemies would have won.
It was time to get out there.
The flexibility of the suit let her move easier than the old Apollo astronauts, but with the low gravity of the Moon, Terra skipped through the capsule to the airlock. Each skip carried her easily forward. It was like coming home.
The airlock controls were online. She wasn’t going to vent the capsule the way she had when she reached the Orbital. If she could get away, she wanted them to think that she might still be inside, and leaving it pressurized would help suggest that.
Inside the airlock, waiting for the cycle to complete, Terra opened the tool case and took out the laser cutter. She closed the tool case and stood ready as the cycle completed.
Indicators showed ready. She pulled the lever and the hatch open. Lunar regolith spilled inside across the floor. Lazy clouds of dust settled over the entrance.
Terra leaned out and looked around. The capsule had come down in the shadowed interior of a crater, not much bigger than the capsule itself. The crater walls were fractured and steep, with blasted rock weathered by time. The line between shadow and sunlight was sharp and clear. Brighter streaks showed where the capsule engines had cast out a fan of lighter dust and rock.
No one was waiting for her in the crater.
Terra stepped out, feeling the regolith compact beneath her feet. Heads up icons on her suit showed the cold temperatures in the shadows. Her suit compensated. She turned and kicked the rocks dust away from the hatch edge, then leaned inside and pulled the hatch closed behind her.
She brushed her foot across her footprints, obliterating them. The soil still looked disturbed, but it wasn’t as clear as a footprint showing where she was going. She walked backward, erasing each step as she went, around the far side of the capsule, deeper into shadows.
It wasn’t going to confuse them long. She turned and skipped and scrambled up the steep crater wall. Debris cascaded down, helping hide her tracks. She reached the top and checked her position map. The LPS satellites were still functioning. A map appeared on her helmet, her position highlighted as less than five kilometers from Diaspora Base.
She turned, beginning to recognize landmarks. This crater was in the rough hilly section to the south of the base. Facing that way, she saw lights moving across the surface.
A crawler, coming this way. The sturdy vehicles weren’t fast, but moved on six legs, like giant bugs, close to the ground. The lights were the bright headlights on the front. She needed to move, but she’d have to go around to avoid the crawler.
A person on the surface could move faster than the crawlers. They weren’t designed for speed, but for slow and steady progress across uneven and sometimes treacherous terrain. They could jump, if needed, right themselves if they fell over, and climb steep angles. Not much of anything stopped a crawler.
But they weren’t fast.
Terra grinned and skipped off away from the crater. Each step carried her swiftly across the surface. Mercury had been much the same, in her visit. Her path took her behind a short rise, into more shadows and more uneven terrain between her and the crawler.
Maybe they saw her, but maybe not. With the LPS she could stay on course and the passive system wouldn’t give her away.
The months spent in the capsule on the journey back from Mercury had weakened her. She skipped, walked, and skipped some more, following a course that twisted and wound around through the uneven landscape as she tried to keep obstacles between her and the landing site. If those in the crawler hadn’t seen her, they would continue to the capsule. That would take time, investigating would take time. What would they do when they discovered her tracks? Follow, or head straight back to the base to cut her off?
She’d head straight back on the assumption that there wasn’t anywhere else for her to go. Why spend time chasing her?
Which made it a race. Could she get there before they made it back?
Who was in the crawler? People loyal to her, or enemies? Traitors like Geoff? Or people from the Lincoln? It was annoying not knowing. Even if she knew, it wouldn’t change things.
She had to get to Diaspora Base and take control. Almost a thousand people worked in the base. They wouldn’t have all betrayed her. And with the landers that the Orbital had, the Lincoln couldn’t have sent down more than a dozen or so people.
Fear and intimidation might have gained them control, but it wouldn’t be enough to keep it. Not unless they stopped her.
Terra angled back more directly for the base. Her breath hissed between her lips as she skipped and she couldn’t help but laugh. She was skipping across the frickin’ Moon on her way to save everything that she had worked so hard to build! They couldn’t stop her now!
As she crested the last rise she stumbled to a stop and the laughter died.
Diaspora Base lay nestled into the craters below. The domes blended into the rough gray terrain, but the dark shadows cast straight lines and curves that were too smooth. Bright green location lights marked the airlocks, the color shocking in this shades of gray world.
That was home. That was the first permanent outpost built on another world, and the heart of the Diaspora Group. Lines radiated out from the base, roads out to the excavation sites where they mined the Moon for resources. The same resources that had made her and Diaspora wealthy beyond all Earthly measures. Most of what they mined remained in space, fueling the efforts to expand throughout the solar system, but the wealth generated was obviously enough to tempt the United States to make a grab for power.
She had to stop them.
Motion caught her eye, to her left. She turned. It was the crawler! Still some distance off, but coming straight across the rough terrain toward the base.
It was still too far off to stop her. She kicked off the surface and sailed down the steep slope, skipping ahead as if in magic boots. The tool kit bounced against her hip.
The nearest dome was also the largest, the first, the central administration dome. Terra skipped up to the airlock marked by those green lights. Looking back, she saw the crawler on the hills above. It appeared to have stopped and people in white suits had gotten out. Why?
Near her foot, dust popped up into the air. Impact!
Not from a micrometeorite, they were shooting at her! Terra bounced to the side. More dust kicked up. She turned and ran this time, long bounding skips across the surface, following the curve of the dome.
They were obviously desperate to stop her. The time for silence was over. Terra focused on her communications icon. It blinked open, and established an immediate connection to the base.
“This Terra Blackstone, calling on everyone loyal to the Diaspora Group. We must resist this hostile, and illegal action before more lives are lost! We didn’t come this far to have our independence —”
The connection blinked red. Signal lost. Terra kept moving. By now she had put the dome between her and those on the hill, but others would be coming.
She knew this outpost better than anyone. The nearest airlock was ahead, off the environmental dome. If they had people inside, that’s where they would come from.
There was another option. The loading docks, down beneath the industrial dome. It was big, designed for the crawlers, and opened directly onto the sub-levels. There were also personal locks there, for workers coming and going. It was on the other side of the base. They wouldn’t expect her to go for it.
Because they were from Earth. They’d expect her to go around the outside of the base, the way she’d been running. Not anymore.
She took the laser cutter from the toolkit, and slid it into a utility loop on her suit. She put the rest of the kit down. She couldn’t do this and carry the whole thing.
Terra turned and bounded up the steep side of the dome. It looked too steep, and hard to climb, but in the lower gravity it wasn’t a problem. She dropped into a hands and feet sort of lope, bouncing along using all four limbs. The exertions dragged her breath out of her and made her lungs and muscles burn, but she soon made it to the crest of the dome.
She turned and slid down the lunar-gray wall to the body, catching her breath in the process. The bottom was the junction between two domes. She took a second to catch her breath, then bounded up the next dome.
Reaching the top of the next, she gratefully slid down the far side, using her hands to slow her descent. She trusted that the suit could handle the rough use without failing. It was farther down this time, all the way to the ground.
She hit bottom and fell, rolling in the dirt. The jolt shook her. Focusing on her indicators, everything still looked green. A credit to the suit designers.
Here bright roads curved across the lunar terrain, cutting through craters and hills, disrupting the stark beauty of the scene. The roads came together and descended into the ground, leading beneath the edge of the dome into the sub-layers.
No one was out and around. Terra skipped on down the road.
Inside bright floods lit the cavernous space. Dormant crawlers crouched, as if she had been shrunk down and had entered a mechanical ant colony. Terra took the walkway on the right, above the main pit, to the nearest person-sized airlock, edged in green lights.
She tapped the panel and entered a general access override code, rather than her identification, in case they had that flagged.
The lights around the airlock turned amber as the chamber cycled, then the door slid open. The space was small, only big enough for two or three suited figures at a time. Inside she hit the activation button. The door slid shut and the cycle began again.
Air hissed into the chamber. The pumps sounded faint at first, then louder as the air pressure grew. From here she had access to the sub-levels, which meant getting to the server room. From there she could control anything that happened in the base.
They’d most likely have it guarded. Terra pulled the laser cutter out of the utility loop. She didn’t want to have to hurt anyone, unless there wasn’t any other option. These people had already tried to kill her several times. If it was necessary, she’d fight back.
The lights around the inner door turned green and then it slid open. She moved to the side of the entrance, checking the corridor in a quick glance.
Bright white lights and an empty, short alcove before it opened up into a locker room. No one visible right now, but somewhere water was running. The showers, presumably.
Terra walked on into the locker room. The water turned off. A rubber on metal sound was a shower door opening. Someone started whistling. Before she had a chance to move a man came around the corner from the showers into the locker room.
He was naked, his body lean and well-toned, pale skinned, and still wet from the shower. Very well-defined, with clear abs and no extra weight around the middle, it was a view that she wouldn’t have minded, under other circumstances. He had a shower over his face as he rubbed vigorously at his hair so he hadn’t yet seen her. His whistling beneath the towel sounded quite cheerful.
“Excuse me,” Terra said.
The man jerked the towel down. It was hard to judge his age from his body, but his face and hair suggested a man in his late thirties, maybe early forties. A sharp nose, and deep-set eyes, his chin darkened with a couple days growth, but flecked with lighter white hairs.
He glanced around the room and lowered the towel to cover his privates. “Sorry about that, I didn’t expect anyone else coming in with the shift lockdown on.”
He had an accent. Irish maybe, although she was never good at that. Scottish?
“What’s your name?”
“My friends call me Sully.” He grinned. “You feel free, now, to do the same.”
He didn’t recognize her. A bit disappointing, although she obviously didn’t look her best.
“You’re not going to tell anyone about me being out after the lockdown, are you?”
“I’d never!” He nodded at the laser cutter in her hand. “I value my skin.”
Terra had to get to the server room, but she hesitated. Sully might be able to answer some valuable questions, give her an idea what she was in for.
“Can I ask you something?”
His grin widened. “Aye, anything you like.”
“Where do you stand on the Americans?”
His fists clenched and his eyebrows drew together. “Don’t tell me you’re with them, I’ll be sorely disappointed!”
“No, not me. Did you hear that message earlier? Before it cut off?”
Sully nodded, his expression still dark. “Ya believe that? Blackstone herself, trying to get back to us…”
His voice trailed off and his eyes widened. He lifted his hand and the towel slipped away, exposing him again. “It’s you! You’re her!”
He scrambled for the towel.
“Sully, are you with me?”
He straightened, pulling the towel up. “Of course! Lord, that’s why I was whistling, thinking about you coming back to run those bastards off!”
“To do that I’ve got to get to the server room. I could use an extra pair of hands.”
“Let me fetch my clothes, and I’m your man,” Sully said. His smile widened. “Anything you want, anything I can do.”
To his credit, Sully dressed quickly, taking on moments pulling on a standard green workall. It fit well enough to reveal how fit he was, while proving much less distracting that a towel in danger of slipping off.
Dressed, barefoot, Sully gestured at her. “You’re going to go through wearing that?”
He had a point. “I don’t have anything to change into.”
“I’m sure there’s some spares around here.” Sully went to the nearest locker, opened it, looked inside and closed it wrinkling his nose. “You don’t want anything from that one.”
The fourth locker turned up a black workall that was her size. Terra caught it when Sully tossed it her way and then she turned, skipping toward the door.
“Hey! I thought you were changing?” Sully caught up with her at the door.
“No time. I need to get to the server room. If we get there, and get a handle on things, then I’ll change.” She handed the workall back to him. “Hang onto that for me.”
This door opened into a main corridor for this level. There would be people out there. She opened the door and looked out. The corridor was empty. Ghostly. Abandoned.
She stepped out and turned around, facing Sully. “Where is everyone?”
“Like I said, it’s after shift lockdown. They’ll all be in their quarters, except essential personnel.” Sully grinned. “Like me.”
“The Lincoln crew instituted this?”
“Aye. Mr. Cooper himself.”
“That’s the one. You know him?”
“Yes.” Terra started down the corridor at a quick pace. “Senator Alex Cooper, of the United States. He’s opposed Diaspora’s work from the beginning. Any private expansion into space.”
“I know his history,” Sully said mildly, keeping pace beside her. “First thing anyone did was look up the man. He’s been suggesting that you’re out of the picture. Your little message earlier had people pretty riled up.”
A door opened on the side of the corridor. The woman that looked out was short, with straight brown hair. When she saw Terra her eyes flew wide open and her mouth dropped open.
“You’re here! Ms. Blackstone!”
A name swam to the surface of Terra’s mind. “Riley, it’s good to see you.”
Riley stepped out and spoke, her voice low. “If they catch you they’re going to take you away!”
“We’re on our way to the server room, from there I can shut down access,” Terra said.
“I don’t know about that,” Riley said. “They’ve got people in there. That was the first thing they did, seize control of all key systems. They knew what they were doing.”
Someone must have fed them information. Terra gestured at Riley’s door. “Let’s go in here.”
“My lab? Okay.” Riley opened the door.
Terra went inside fast, scanning the space for anyone else. It was empty, full of machine and robotic parts, including an intact crawler at the far end. The lab had a roll up door at the end to accommodate the larger equipment. Riley was one of the top researchers that she had on artificial intelligence.
Sully closed the door behind them.
Riley looked up at him. “Who are you?”
“Sullivan Ward, ma’am.” He gave her a charming smile and Terra wasn’t surprised to see color rising in Riley’s cheeks.
Terra reached up and unfastened the catches on the helmet, twisting it free. Cool air bathed her face. She closed her eyes for a second, savoring the feeling, before she opened her eyes and put the helmet aside on a nearby work table.
“Sully, I’m going to need that workall.”
Sully grinned and turned from Riley. “Of course.”
Terra deactivated the suit and the pressure eased as the garment relaxed around her, becoming more shapeless.
“Let me help,” Riley said.
Riley went around her backside and undid the catches from there. It was possible to do them while in the suit, just. It wasn’t always easy to reach or manipulate with the gloves on. It was still better than the extreme environment suits, like those on Mercury, but the help was appreciated.
Terra ducked her head down through the collar and shrugged her arms back up out of the sleeves. After doing it with the straps on in the capsule, this was much easier. Cool air poured in the opening at the back and through the collar, reminding her how sweaty she had gotten during her flight.
She shoved the suit off, over her head and straightened, with the suit bending over at her waist. Her thin black top barely went down far enough to cover her breasts. Sully’s eyes looked like they might pop out of his head.
It was only fair. She’d seen him fresh out of the shower, after all. Terra winked at him as she bent over, arching her back just to torture the man and stepped out of the suit.
Sully actually blushed and turned away, clearing his throat. “Excuse me, ma’am! You caught me by surprise there. I didn’t mean to stare.”
Riley giggled, helping take up the suit and pile it on the table.
“Unless you expect me to stand around in my undies, I’m still going to need that workall,” Terra said. She held out her hand toward Sully.
Sully turned just enough to hand her the workall and then turned back away again. It was dear of him to do so, after their earlier encounter. She pulled on the workall, grateful for the light loose material after wearing the suit. Her hair had come loose getting out of the suit, so she took the opportunity to pull the rubber band out and shake her hair free.
“You can turn around,” she said to Sully.
He turned, and gave her another big grin. “Thank you, ma’am. I hope I didn’t embarrass myself too much by staring.”
Terra stepped close to Sully and placed a hand on his chest. “I’d have been more bothered if you hadn’t noticed.” She tapped his chest lightly. “But right now we have more important concerns.”
She turned to Riley. “I need to borrow your expertise.”
“Of course, but what can we do?”
Terra reached out and took Riley’s delicate hands, surprising considering the work she did with heavy equipment. “We’re going to bug the server room.”
Terra laid out her plan for her two accomplices. They couldn’t get to the server room, not without being captured. But the main trunk lines for the server room were accessible in the network access conduits. She proposed sending some of Riley’s micro-robots into the conduits to wire a hard tap into the trunk, which she would then use to regain control of the base.
“That’ll set off alarms,” Riley said.
Terra shook her head. “Not if I use my backdoor access. I have ultimate override authority on the system. If you can get me tapped in, I can lock everyone out. Lock everything down.”
“They’ll be searching for you,” Sully said. “They’ll know soon, if they don’t already, which way you came in.”
“They should already know,” Terra said. “All they had to do was look at the airlock logs. I didn’t use my identification, but that won’t fool them. No one else was around to open that airlock. Except you.”
“Then they’ll be looking for me too,” Sully said. “I could lead them off, give them a false trail.”
It’d put him in some danger, but she didn’t think the Americans planned to kill everyone in the base.
“Fine,” she agreed. “What’re you going to do?”
Sully winked. “Don’t worry about. I’ll head on back and buy you time. You can buy me a drink afterward.”
“It’s a date,” Terra agreed. “Thank you.”
Sully shook his head. “Just kick their asses back to Earth!”
With a nod, Sully hurried off, slipping out the door into the corridor. Riley came up beside Terra, her eyes dark and worried.
“Can you trust him?”
“What choice do we have?” Terra asked. “Show me what you’ve got.”
Riley had several candidates. Tiny, toy-like, insect-inspired bugs and snake-like robots. Each was designed to get into tight spaces and report back with a variety of sensors, including video and audio.
Several were small pill-bug like creations, rolled up in balls like shiny segmented ball-bearings. Terra pushed them around with her finger and they didn’t respond.
“How many of these do you have?”
“Several hundred,” Riley said. “And the printer can put them out in batches of a hundred and fifty per sheet.”
“Excellent. Let’s deploy them. Not just to the server. I want them in systems throughout the base. We’re going to lock out every system that they can get attached to.”
Riley nodded. “I can do that, but once they find them, they can disable or remove them and restart the affected systems, can’t they?”
Terra shook her head. “No. With my access, I can put the systems into a state where they can’t clear the lockout.”
It didn’t take long at all for Riley to gather the pill bugs. She poured out jars of them onto one of the work tables. She tapped a couple commands on a tablet and all at once the pill bugs came to life. They unrolled and scurried about, lining up in perfect formations across the table.
Riley grinned and held the tablet out to Terra. “They’re all yours. Enter your access code, and we’ll be good to —”
Shouts in the hallway interrupted her. More shouts, angry, orders to stop. Riley stabbed a finger at the tablet and the pill bug robots scattered in all directions.
Riley thrust the tablet against Terra’s chest. “Go! Get in the crawler. I’ll distract them. Go!”
There wasn’t any other choice. Terra knew it, as much as she hated it. She took the tablet. “Thank you.”
Then she ran, bounding through the lab, in long skipping steps. There wasn’t any sign of the pill bugs. Whatever Riley had done, they’d gone into hiding.
Just like she needed to do now. The shouting sounded like it was right outside the lab now, men cursing, grunts and sounds that couldn’t be anything except people fighting.
Terra reached the crawler, diving in through the open airlock into the main compartment. There wasn’t much space, it was packed with crates. She moved forward, toward the front of the crawler and sat down in one of the side-facing seats, behind the bulkhead. It had the advantage of keeping her hidden from view, while letting her peek forward through the windows into the lab and gave her a clear view to the airlock door.
She had to get the pill bugs deployed with her access code and get key systems locked down!
The interface for the pill bugs was active. Schematics showed them clustered beneath equipment and in the vents around the room.
Terra peeked out around the corner. Riley was heading for the lab’s door.
In an alternate window, Terra pulled up the tablet’s diagnostics and checked for traces and taps. She’d stayed alive by being careful, and she wasn’t going to change that now. Two traces showed immediately. Someone was watching the activity on the tablet!
If she entered her access code, whoever was watching would get it, giving them secure access to all of the Diaspora systems. In one moment they could gain everything that they had wanted by coming here.
She peeked out again. No sign of Riley.
Was the scientist in on it? After Geoff’s betrayal, she couldn’t discount the possibility. People that she had thought would back her had betrayed her already. She couldn’t take the risk.
She needed a distraction. Fortunately, the crawler was exactly what she needed. Leaving the tablet on the seat, she eased forward into the pilot’s seat. She was very exposed, if anyone came in, but it only took a moment to set up the commands on the crawlers’ command board.
Terra got up and slipped back out to the crawler’s airlock. No sign of anyone. She stepped out, and made her way around the far side of the crawler.
Voices in the hall. The sound of the door opening. Riley’s voice raised. “What are you doing?”
“Get out of the way!” A man said, his voice angry.
“This is my lab! You don’t have any right to —”
Riley let out a surprised yelp. “Hey!”
“Hold her,” the man said. “The rest of you get in here and search.”
“Let go!” Riley shouted. “What are you looking for?”
A chuckle. “As if you don’t know. We’ve been monitoring everything. Blackstone is here.” His voice raised. “You hear that, Ms. Blackstone? Come out now and save us all the bother. You’re finished!”
Terra moved along the space behind the crawler. He might be right. If she couldn’t deploy the pill bugs, what chance did she have? If they caught her they could make her disappear and claim that she hadn’t survived the landing. Or whatever story they wanted to make up.
She peeked out. Those from the Lincoln were moving around the lab. Three men and a woman, complexions colored by time spent out in the Sun (obviously from Earth), all wearing sharp blue military uniforms. They’d find her soon, it wasn’t like she could stay hidden for long. All she needed was a moment with an unwatched access point and they’d be done.
It was almost time. Beside her, the crawler stirred to life, lights coming on, and legs stomping through a systems check. There were answering shouts, and what sounded like people rushing toward her.
Terra slid along the back of the crawler, crouched and jumped.
Her Earth-adapted muscles, even with the time spent in transit in the capsule, carried her up onto the top of the crawler. She moved on hands and knees across it to the edge. The Lincoln crew rushed to the crawler, clearly convinced she was inside. One of the men stumbled and knocked over a piece of equipment, cursing as he did.
They didn’t have their lunar legs yet. In their haste to catch her, they kept forgetting how easy it was to get off balance. Skipping wasn’t coming naturally to them.
The group reached the crawler, still running through the startup test sequence she had set on a time. Three of them went up into the airlock. The last, a man with blond hair, leaned on the opening.
“Do you got her?”
Terra dropped down behind him, landing lightly on her feet. “Nope!”
He turned but she grabbed his uniform and lifted him off his feet. He yelled, his expression one of pure bewilderment, and she tossed him into the crawler. He collided with the others, and they landed in a heap against the crates stored in the crawler.
Terra wiggled her fingers at him. “Sit tight now.”
The airlock doors hissed shut, cutting the Lincoln officers off. The crawler went into lock down.
“That worked better than I expected,” Terra said.
“You did it!” Riley yelled, clapping her hands.
Riley was at the front of the lab, beside the door. Terra skipped through the lab and caught Riley’s hands when she reached her. They jumped up and down. Riley looked back across the lab.
“Can they get out?”
“Not before we take care of this problem. Your office, now.” Terra led Riley by the hand to the offices at the back of the lab.
The four Lincoln officers weren’t everyone, that much was obvious. The office was as cluttered as the lab. Riley picked up a crate of parts from a second chair. It looked like it should topple over the small woman, but that was the lower gravity for you. Those from Earth still hadn’t adjusted.
Terra sat down at Riley’s station and activated it with a touch. She was going to trust Riley hadn’t known about the tablet, at least until she investigated. If Riley had tried to set her up, Riley couldn’t say anything now without implicating her.
“What are you doing?” Riley asked.
“Activating the pill bugs.” Terra pulled up the controls in one window and a command level window in the other. She checked, always cautious, and found nothing suspicious running on the system. She switched back to the pill bugs and sent the command to scatter, identify and tap into as many systems as they could reach. With their networked intelligence the bugs would reach every system. She equipped each of them with her access code and the instruction to lock down the base. No doors would open. No systems would respond. Not even environmental system, without her approval.
Terra turned and faced Riley. The petite woman stood in the corner, a length of pipe in her hands. Terra raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing with that, Riley?”
Riley’s lower lip trembled. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“You put the traces on the tablet, to get the access code.” Terra stood slowly. “You were helping the Americans.”
“They said that they would arrest my parents, in Ohio!” Riley waved the pipe. “They wanted to catch you —”
“Kill me, actually,” Terra said.
Riley shook her head.
The fire that burned in Terra’s chest grew hotter. How dare they? She’d worked and sacrificed, ever since she was a girl, to make it possible for people to visit these worlds and make them home. And these people thought they could come in and do this?
“Yes,” Terra said. “They’ve killed. They’ve tried to kill me when I reached orbit, by sending a program to divert me into Earth’s atmosphere. They got to Geoff and he delivered me to the surface trussed up for them. They chased me. Shot at me before I got inside. They want me dead.”
The pipe fell from Riley’s hands, tumbling in the air as it fell to the floor. Terra reached out and snatched it before it hit. It was like she had all the time in the world to do so.
Riley flinched away.
“Don’t worry,” Terra said. She looked out through the office window into the lab. The Lincoln officers were still trapped in the crawler. They wouldn’t be going anywhere.
“I forgive you,” Terra said. “And when I get these people settled, we’ll send them back to Earth, where they belong. I will do everything I can to protect your parents, and any other loved ones back on Earth, but really the only way that’s going to happen is if they join us. It’s time for the exodus. Everyone that wants off Earth is going to have to get off.”
“What?” Riley wiped her face on her lab coat. “You mean that?”
“Yes. We’ve been planning for it. We have ships around the world, ready to launch. When I give the word our forces will start getting people to the ships. We’ll launch and then cut ties. At least until people back on Earth calm down, and decide to act reasonably.”
A chime came from Riley’s station. Terra glanced at the display. “The servers are ours, along with ninety percent of the other systems. Diaspora Base is locked down. Are you with me?”
Riley nodded. “I’m sorry! I didn’t want to betray you, I just didn’t know what to do.”
“I know.” Terra forced a smile. It was lonely sometimes being the one in charge. “Let’s get things settled here. We’ve got a whole solar system to worry about.”
She sat back down in front of the station, and Riley took the second chair, rolling up beside her. Terra put the pipe aside on the floor.
Using her access through the pill bugs, she activated communications.
“Attention, Lincoln crew, and any Diaspora personnel that may have been coerced into cooperating. You’ll be pleased to know that I’m back in charge!” Terra smiled for the cameras. “We’ve got some business to take care of, including your unconditional surrender, before you run out of air.”
It didn’t take long. They didn’t have any choice. Eventually the human civilization on these worlds would grow and one person wouldn’t be in charge. That day wasn’t today.
It could be lonely being in charge, but it didn’t have to be lonely all the time. After she finished, she wanted to relax back in her own neglected quarters, maybe with Sully to keep her company for dinner?
This story marks the third weekly short story release, and the third Planetary Bodies story. I’d meant to get it up yesterday and ended up busy with other things so it’s up this morning instead.
I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the series links at the top of the page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story.